Old Dominion doesn’t have a Giddy, a Kermit or a King. And it didn’t spend the summer waltzing with a McDonald’s All-American before moving on and having a good season anyway.
Instead, the Monarchs have a coach with an alliterative, common name, and their biggest offseason news was seeing their second-leading scorer transfer to Iowa State. But Jeff Jones and ODU have earned some of the Conference USA spotlight, and have a chance to make a big splash with a home game against Middle Tennessee Thursday night.
At 7-1, and 16-4 overall, the Monarchs are off to their best league start since joining C-USA in 2013-14. Getting past the 8-1 Blue Raiders would not only be a major step toward a regular season title, it would also be a first. ODU has never beaten MT in seven all-time meetings, and has been dispatched by the Blue Raiders in three of its four trips to the CUSA Tournament.
If that streaks ends Thursday, it’ll likely be built on ODU’s defense.
The Monarchs have been consistently stingy under Jones, especially at making life difficult for opponents around the rim. This season, they’ve got the fifth-best two-point field goal defense in the country (42.0%), which has fueled the 51st most efficient defense per KenPom.
ODU’s interior length — 6’10 Trey Porter and 6’7 Brandan Stith — now need to deal with MT’s Nick King (21.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 37.1 3P%), the league’s POY frontrunner.
Brandan Stith will likely draw the assignment of guarding the 6-7 King, but he’ll have help. ODU can also deploy its own 1-3-1 defense, a wrinkle Jones has added this season, to good effect.
It’s modeled on the Blue Raiders’ 1-3-1.
”One thing about Middle Tennessee is they have really big players who can cover a lot of ground in that 1-3-1,” Stith said. “Now that we actually have a little size on our side, I feel we’ll be able to at least simulate what they put other teams through.”
While that’s the matchup headliner, the Monarchs offense has been just as impressive this season. They’ve posted the most efficient offense since CUSA play began, and have been shooting the three better than at any time in Jones’ tenure. All this despite losing Zoran Talley (11.3 PPG in 2016-17), their second-leading scorer a year ago, to the Cyclones.
There’s no shortage of reasons for the uptick. Junior point guard Ahmad Caver has been one of the best facilitators in the league (14.7 PPG, 6.2 APG), rarely turning the ball over against CUSA opponents. Senior guard Randy Haynes has taken a leap in his second year with the program (12.0 PPG), which was on display in a 24-point outing against Charlotte last weekend.
But the best story for ODU, offensive production or not, has been Porter. The Virginian-Pilot wrote about the junior center’s career year (13.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) in the face of diabetes, which he was diagnosed with as an infant.
“I think we’ve started doing a really good job of managing it,” he said. “I don’t have to sit out as much because my blood sugar is low. I’m able to stay in practice longer and get more conditioning.”
The results have been noticeable. Playing 23.8 minutes per game, nine more than last season, the 6-foot-10 Porter averages 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and shoots 59 percent from the floor. His 126 free- throw attempts are nearly 40 more than anyone else on the team.
Despite Western Kentucky holding that ultra-fancy win over Purdue, MT made a big statement knocking off the Hilltoppers on the road on Jan. 20. With their own elite defense and All-American candidate in King, CUSA still goes through the Blue Raiders.
ODU can, at least temporarily, shake that up with a first-of-its-kind win on Thursday night.